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Michigan Apple Committee, like industry, recharged after an unusual production year

LANSING, MI — Diane Smith has worked for the Michigan Apple Committee, based in a comfortable office here, since the mid-1990s. It was in July 2012 that she became the organization's executive director.

Her first-go at the helm was a baptism by fire, as a few months prior to her taking the post, the apple growers she represents were struck by a series of freezes that left Michigan with less than 10 percent of a normal crop. Michigan in 2011 harvested about 26 million bushels of apples. Less than three million bushels were harvested in 2012, creating the state's smallest crop since the mid-1940s. "If you can get through the past year, you can get through anything!" she noted.

Meeting with The Produce News on July 15, 2013, Smith said, "This year has been great." In July 2012 the board had a two day planning meeting, "tearing apart everything we ever thought. We made a new plan to appeal to consumers and look for new opportunities."

Certainly up for discussion was thinking beyond the "locally grown" promotional emphasis.

2013-7-15-0944-Diane-Smith-Diane Smith Gretchen Mensing MAC Lansing In the Lansing headquarters of the Michigan Apple Committee are association executives Diane Smith, executive director, and Gretchen Mensing, communications and marketing manager. Smith said that half of the United States' income — and population — is within 500 miles of Michigan. Thus "it makes sense to appeal to the 'locally grown' effort. But there are other opportunities with targeting Hispanic consumers or (Hispanic) retailers. Should we cater to those markets? We're taking the time to see what else there is that we should develop."

This includes an increased emphasis on boosting Michigan apple exports.

Meanwhile, "Our growers are investing in the infrastructure of storage and upgrades. Over the last year, especially, they are investing back in the orchards and being proactive in moving forward," Smith said. "The packing facilities are being upgraded too, with incredible investments."

For a number of years, Michigan's apple growers have invested in high-density plantings and trees that provide "the varieties consumers want."

The four premium varieties coming from Michigan, she added, Honeycrisp, Jonagold, Fuji and Gala.

From 2008 until 2011 - and again in the coming year - the Michigan Apple Committee has and will conduct blind consumer taste tests on apple origins and varieties. "The Michigan Honeycrisp came out on top every time. We hang our hat on that."

The consumer research is valuable for a number of reasons, not the least of which being "retailers love the data and information." The Michigan Apple Committee has answered by producing one-page varietal information piece for in-store use.

The focus groups suggested that the Michigan Apple Committee tie into the statewide Pure Michigan promotion. Three years ago, this advice led to television personality Tim Allen providing voice-overs in the fall for Pure Michigan television advertising in Chicago and Detroit. The ad also runs in the winter as part of the committee's Healthy Living promotional program.

Smith said her apple committee also conducts in-store promotions of Michigan apples in Grand Rapids, MI, Chicago and Detroit.

Furthermore, in the key large markets of Chicago and Detroit, the apple committee promotes the varieties through live chef demonstrations and in-store signage. The chef demonstrations promote "the use of Michigan apples for breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between."

Michigan's apple committee also runs a retail display contest that is open to produce managers around the country. "This allows store level people to be creative and center in on varieties that are available from Michigan." The winners have a cash award given to the charity of their choice.

In its Midwest promotions, the Michigan Apple Committee makes the most of consumer interest in locally grown produce. Michigan growers are featured in point of sale materials.

In October the Michigan Apple Committee will exhibitat the Produce Marketing Association convention for the 36th consecutive year. In 2013 the booth will be a double-sized 20-foot by 20-foot booth.